On this blog, we’re a little guilty of writing for an audience of people who have been drinking, loving and cherishing whisky for years. And, although we try to avoid falling into the pit of whisky elitism wherever possible, we have noticed that whenever we recommend a bottle of whisky, it’s complex, elegant and takes a while to get your mouth around.
In other words, they’re not ideal for whisky newbies.
How are you going to tell your medicinal from your smokey, or new wood from old wood, without a frame of reference?
So, we thought we’d put together a series of blog posts that look at starter Scotches – the kind of Scotches that are perfect for somebody new to the world of whisky.
But we’re not going to fill this series full of Bell’s Original and Teacher’s Highland Cream.
We’re going to write about whiskies that are the perfect first steps for taking your whisky drinking experience to the next level. (Think of it as expanding your whisky vocabulary.)
(And, pretty soon, you’ll be ready to take on the complex independent bottlings and see what all the fuss is about.)
And so, to kick of the series, we thought we’d look at a much-loved single malt from Islay – the 16-year-old Lagavulin.
Starter Scotches – Part I: Lagavulin 16-year-old.
OK, Lagavulin 16 isn’t the easiest whisky to get on with. (We know, that makes it an odd choice for the Starter Scotches series, but bear with us.)
If you’ve only tried a few Scotches and a bourbon or two, you’re in for a huge shock.
This whisky is not subtle.
And it’s probably unlike any alcohol you’ve ever experienced. (Unless you’ve ever tried mezcal, the Mexican agave spirit? If so, they’re quite similar in terms of smokiness and shock.)
Trying your first Lagavulin 16
Like all Lagavulin’s whiskies, the 16 is made with heavily peat-smoked malt which gives it an incredibly distinctive whiff that’s akin to leaning over a bonfire and taking a huge sniff.
So, before you take a noseful, prepare yourself for that.
It’s probably going to smell unfamiliar and unlike any whiskies you’ve ever tried before – but in all the right ways.
The first thing you’ll notice is a huge hit of smoke. The second thing you’ll notice is the huge hit of smoke, too. And the third, fourth and fifth.
(Some people notice the smell of TCP, too – that’s completely normal.)
Once your nose has got used to the smoke, take another whiff. Can you smell a faint salty note? That’s the sea air that’s typical of Islay whiskies.
Congratulations – you’ve just nosed a Lagavulin and detected a tonne of characteristics! (Want to find out more about why you nose a whisky? We’ve written a handy guide.)
When you take a sip, that hit of smoke and peat doesn’t let up. It’s a one-two combo followed by a haymaker of pure smoky aggression.
If you’ve never tried a peaty whisky before, it’s going to knock your socks off.
This scene from Parks and Recreation is a pretty spot-on depiction of a first Lagavulin experience:
But then, go back for a second and third sip, and you’ll notice that the smokiness has mellowed out a little, giving you a peek into the maritime environment of the Islay distillery. You’ll get salt, malt, sherry with hints of fruity (pineapple and orange) sweetness and big oaky flavours. (And, of course, peat.)
And, despite the smokiness, it’s surprisingly sweet.
That sounds difficult to get along with – why is it part of the Starter Scotches series?
This Lagavulin is the whisky equivalent of jumping in at the deep-end.
It’s not like gradually trying better and better whiskies to notice subtle changes, it’s a short-cut to the front of the line.
The Lagavulin 16 isn’t just a big, bold and powerful whisky – it’s also complex and intriguing. You get to experience peat and smoke like never before and learn to look for different notes in the whisky.
Your nose and palate will learn a tonne of new things in a short space of time, and you’ll have a point of reference for every whisky you try from now on.
Plus, you get to try a damned good whisky.
Photo credit: Jason's Scotch Whisky.